published Thursday, September 20th, 2012

Cleaveland: Can we prevent mass killings?

Clif Cleaveland

Shortly after midnight on July 20, a gunman wearing a gas mask and body armor entered a cinema in Aurora, Colo., and began firing. Twelve people were killed. Fifty-eight were wounded, some gravely.

After a few days of intense media coverage, this horrific event, similar to previous massacres, has sunk from public attention. Families of those killed and survivors and their loved ones will forever bear the pain and sorrow of that day.

The alleged gunman had recently dropped out of a graduate program at the University of Colorado. Acquaintances report worrisome behavior. A student health physician reported her concerns to a threat assessment team at the university. This investigation stopped when the man ended his program of study.

Defense attorneys have blocked the release of further information, arguing that this would prejudice subsequent legal actions. So society may have to wait years to piece together the events leading up to this disaster to determine if it could have been prevented. By that time, additional mass shootings may have occurred.

Columbine, Virginia Tech, Tucson, Wisconsin's Sikh Temple -- the sites of civilian massacres by sociopathic or demented gunmen multiply.

What, if anything, can we do in the meantime to prevent the next killings? Our political leaders maintain silence on this issue.

We could arm everyone and hope that this might deter potential mass murderers. Or we could place security gates at every public place and accept frequent inconveniences in exchange for enhanced safety. These are impractical solutions.

Much more feasible are forthright national and local deliberations that focus upon changes in laws related to guns and their access by violent or unstable persons. Among the topics to consider:

• National standards for gun purchase and licensure are essential. Before a gun can be obtained from any vendor, whether store or gun show, time must be allowed for a background check of the purchaser to determine if he or she has a history of violent or unstable behavior.

• Limits must be placed on the types of weapons and accessories that can be purchased by anyone. Does the Second Amendment mean that everyone has a right to assault weapons, armor-piercing bullets and extended ammunition clips?

• Online purchases of weapons, ammunition and body armor must be prohibited or subject to careful scrutiny by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

• When schools or colleges encounter students or staff members who exhibit violent tendencies, a system must be in place for immediate reporting of the individual to violence-assessment teams. The team, in turn, must investigate each case promptly and thoroughly. If health-care professionals are involved in the assessment or care of students with violent impulses, patient confidentiality must be waived to protect the community.

• We need clearly demarcated gun-free zones to include schools, colleges, places of worship and public buildings. Employers and business owners should have the right to ban weapons on their premises.

• Our political leaders must convene discussions on guns and related violence. They owe us full disclosure of donations and influences from gun lobbyists.

Less-publicized murders occur regularly throughout our country. In 2010, the most recent year for complete data from FBI Uniform Crime Reports, 12,996 murders occurred in the United States, 8,775 of which resulted from gunfire.

The District of Columbia led the nation in murders by firearms with 16 per 100,000 residents, followed by Louisiana with 7.75. Georgia's rate was 3.79, Tennessee's 3.46 and Alabama's 2.85.

For many years our country has been engaged in a legal struggle to define the rights of individuals to own firearms. "Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right To Bear Arms in America" by Adam Winkler provides a well-researched and engaging history of this contentious issue. This book is a useful starting place for calm, informed deliberations on our epidemic of gun violence.

The status quo is not acceptable.

Email Clif Cleaveland at cleaveland1000@comcast.net.

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